Saturday, April 25, 2009

touching my ancestors

Today I looked at potsherds and arrowhead pieces and broken ax heads and irregular marbles hand-fired years ago. I touched the intricate paint designs on the snapped pieces of bowls and mugs, licked my finger to touch the paints and make them come alive in deep, rich color, as if new. The whorls and swirls of mud pushed together by hands long since returned to dust bumped under my questing, delicate touch. I imagined the Fremont, the Anasazi, the tribes I'd never heard of, my visions fuzzy, possibly romantic, certainly not quite accurate. But my imaginings were very earnest and respectful, no matter how they might lack in precise truth.

I imagined myself. I felt their pain, their joy, their simple acceptance of daily existence. I touched their lives, broken and scattered in my palms, and it was only afterward that I thought, This might be all that is left of this person. A broken shard of mud, claimed from its ancient desert resting place by eager, modern, white hands. This might be all that is left of an entire human life.

What do we leave behind, anyway? How much? Why? And who will see it, feel it, in some distant and unknowable future? Who did I touch today, anyway? And how will I ever know that person? Can I actually understand, fully comprehend, the life of someone who lived so long ago, in such a different way than I do?

Doubtful. I mean, I barely comprehend myself in all my complicated, complex, blazingly simple human glory, right?

But I do understand that I hold history in my hands as I look at the shards of pottery. I do understand my link, tenuous as it might be, to these people who hundreds of years earlier roamed this very area I now call home. I can make up stories about them, conjure up their lives, a moment in their day, which might be fired in part by movies and books and snippets of overheard conversation during my lifetime.

I can hold a piece of them in my hands, and I can link myself back to them, and I can touch my ancestors, no matter how far removed they actually may be from me in cellular or geographic or cultural terms. This little piece of mud is me, and you, and it might be the only thing left of us when we too shuffle off this mortal coil. So handle with care.

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